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June 4, 2021

5 ways to stop overthinking, according to the Harvard Business Review

Daily Briefing
    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Nov. 17, 2022.

    Deliberation is an essential skill for any leader, but it can easily devolve from "helpful contemplation" to "overthinking." Writing for the Harvard Business Review, executive coach Melody Wilding shares five strategies to "stop the cycle of thinking too much and drive towards better, faster decisions."

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    1. Avoid perfectionism

    According to Wilding, "[p]erfectionism is one of the biggest blockers to swift, effective decision-making because it operates on faulty all-or-nothing thinking." For instance, perfectionism can make people try "to weigh every possible outcome and consideration" before making a decision—an approach that effectively paralyzes the decision maker in a state of inaction, Wilding writes.

    To counter this tendency, Wilder recommends asking yourself questions such as, "Which decision will have biggest positive impact on my top priorities?" or "What is one thing I could do today that would bring me closer to my goal?" According to Wilder, questions like these can help people "take action towards a single next step rather than trying to project months or years into the future."

    2. Right-size the issue

    Before mulling over an issue in depth, Wilder recommends writing down "what goals, priorities, or people in your life will be impacted" by the decision, so you can "differentiate between what's meaningful and what's not worth obsessing over."

    Similarly, she writes, gain perspective on potential failure by using the "10/10/10 test" for big decisions—ask yourself, if you ultimately make the wrong choice, how will you feel about it "10 weeks, 10 months, or 10 years from now." According to Wilder, "[y]our answers can help you put things in perspective and rally the motivation you need to take action."  

    3. Use your intuition

    When you use your intuition, Wilder writes, your brain "quickly assesses all your experiences, and then makes the best decision given the context" in a manner that's quicker than rational thought—a particularly helpful approach when "time is short and traditional data is not available." In fact, according to Wilder, "research shows that pairing intuition with analytical thinking helps you make better, faster, and more accurate decisions and gives you more confidence in your choices than relying on intellect alone."

    Wilder recommends allowing yourself to use your gut instincts from time to time, such as by establishing a "Day of Disinhibition" in which you can rely solely on your intuition for 24 hours or by simply taking time to list out "three or five times you trusted your gut … and whether the outcome was favorable."

    4. Limit decision fatigue

    According to Wilder, each of the several hundred decisions you make each day—from what to wear, to what to eat, to how to respond to an email—"depletes your mental and emotional resources." And because you're "more likely to overthink when you're drained, … the more you can eliminate minor decisions, the more energy you'll have for ones that really matter," Wilder writes.

    To put this approach in practice, Wilder recommends searching for ways to "eliminate certain decisions altogether, such as by instituting best practices and standardized protocols, delegating, or removing yourself from meetings."

    5. Establish 'creative constraints'

    According to Wilder, people tend to let their overthinking expand "to the time we allow it." In other words, she writes, if you give yourself a week to fret over a task that would only take you one hour to complete, "you will waste an inordinate amount of time and energy."

    Wilder recommends limiting this tendency by "creating accountability through creative constraints." For instance, she advises specifying the time or date by which you want to make a certain decision, or simply reserve a limited amount of time on your work calendar as "'worry time,'" in which you "constructively problem solve" (Wilding, Harvard Business Review, 2/10).

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